Commentary: Emmy voters should not strand 'Survivor'

Show deserves to break 'The Amazing Race' streak

For the past five years, television academy voters have awarded an Emmy for outstanding reality-competition program.

And for the past five years, they have given that award to CBS' "The Amazing Race."

Ambitious, exciting and technically challenging, "Race" is a worthwhile Emmy recipient.

Yet the reality production community, and even many critics, have gone from applauding the perennial "Race" victory to feeling downright exasperation. As "Project Runway" executive producer and three-time competition Emmy runner-up Jane Lipsitz succinctly puts it, "It becomes, 'Really?' "

Yeah. Exactly. Really. Through no fault of its own, "Race" has evolved into the "Boston Legal" of reality shows -- older-skewing viewers and softish 18-49 demo ratings yet with a mantel stuffed with Emmys. Reality insiders snark that it wins the competition series Emmy because it's the only reality show that stodgy academy voters actually watch.

But this year, there's another program that deserves to halt the "Race" Emmy reign, and its tough to believe even Emmy voters haven't seen it.

As another reality producer says, "How is it that 'Survivor' has not won the competition Emmy?"

"The show made the reality genre what it is today," continues the producer, whose own shows have competed against those of "Survivor" executive producer Mark Burnett. "It's eight years old and wins a very tough Thursday time slot every week."

One has to go back to "Survivor's" debut season in 2000 to tally an Emmy victory. It picked up two awards, including the now-defunct outstanding nonfiction program award. Since then, it has been nominated 24 times in various categories without a win. In 2003, the academy created the outstanding reality-competition program category, and "Race" has dominated ever since.

Of course, "American Idol" also is long overdue for a major Emmy victory. "How can a show watched by 30 million people never win?" the producer asks.

Likewise, Bravo's "Runway" always is a solid contender, as is "Top Chef" (which is wrapping a terrific season). NBC's "The Biggest Loser" and Fox's "Hell's Kitchen" are underappreciated by academy voters and also worth a nod.

But this season, it's easiest to make a winning case for "Survivor."

The reality community, critics and fans hailed the spring's "Survivor Micronesia: Fans vs. Favorites" cycle as one of the best in the show's whopping 16 editions, if not the best.

" 'Survivor' is a human game of chess, and this season the strategy and game play was thrilling to watch as pawns repeatedly and unexpectedly bumped off more powerful pieces, and other pieces fell off in startling ways," MSNBC wrote. "... It followed an exponential curve, transforming into a season worthy of the designation of 'best season ever.' "

For those who missed it, the "Fans vs. Favorites" setup made for a compelling spin on the typically sleepy format of bringing back former contestants to compete. The edition dramatically featured three cast members leaving the game prematurely from either quitting or being evacuated because of injury. The endgame had the show's first all-female final four, a quartet as devious as they were inspiring.

Most impressive for longtime fans were the number of masterful manipulations executed by the cast, a spree of last-minute twists and blindsides that had viewers yelling at their TV sets.

Here's a key scene that exemplifies "Survivor's" season. The setup: During the previous two episodes, contestants found the coveted Immunity Idol, and convinced they were not the target of their tribe's votes, they failed to play it and were stunned to get voted out. This time, contestant Amanda Kimmel (wearing the backward ballcap) was the target -- and knew it. She had a shot at searching for the Idol, but producers open the tribal council scene without revealing whether she found it. Noted one producer: "Amanda deserves an acting Emmy for how she played this, if not her own show."

Granted, such factors might not be the direct result of producer creativity. But that's also what made the season so rewarding. The relatively hands-off "Survivor" design can result in long stretches of predictability. Fans grow accustomed to contestants hatching ambitious schemes that are doomed to fail. So to watch -- against all odds and previous viewing experience -- the dramatic tumblers fall perfectly into alignment and result in a streak of dramatically satisfying upsets made for a thrilling weekly hour of television.

"Race" is a great show. But "Survivor" deserves the Emmy.